Equal Doesn't Mean Equal Yet: Women's Equality Day, ERA And The Story of My Life

My friend Carol Jenkins, a board member of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition was updating me over lunch about the current attempt to get the ERA into the U.S. Constitution.

"This is where I came in," I said.

The renewed effort, founded in 2014, comes almost a century after suffragist leader Alice Paul drafted the ERA in 1923.  The language is simple : "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex."

Paul, a founder of the National Woman's Party, was one of the few suffragist leaders who recognized that getting the right to vote in 1920--the reason we celebrate women's equality day each August 26 - - was not the end of the fight, but merely one necessary, albeit major, victory on the path to full legal and social equality.

Many suffrage leaders declared victory after the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. They went on to other causes, but Paul realized that in a democracy, no political victory is secure without a vibrant movement to keep fighting forward. "It is incredible to me," she said, "that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and accustomed policy is not to ignore women."

Despite being introduced in Congress each year, the ERA went nowhere until the 1970's when it became a central organizing theme for second wave feminists.

I was a young mom teaching kindergarten at Head Start in Odessa Texas then. I met Texas State Representative Frances "Sissy" Farenthold in a cavernous hall filled with her cheering supporters who hoped she would become governor.  I learned that the Equal Rights Amendment would be on the Texas ballot in 1972. Farenthold and State Senator and future first African American congresswoman, the late Barbara Jordan were leading the charge.

The ERA in both state and federal versions, would sail through the state's constitutional amendment election.

Looking at Texas red state politics today, many of my colleagues cannot believe the scenario. But I was a witness to this history.

I was awakened to the utter lack of legal protections for me, my daughters, and all the women I knew. Since women were giving birth to everyone, doing most of the educating of the next generation, and beginning to show up in many if not most professions and yet (as happened to me) couldn't get credit or a credit card without a male cosigner and still couldn't get certain jobs--it made perfect sense. I mean, why wouldn't everyone agree with such simple justice?

Yet here I was chatting with Carol about this "new" ERA movement, far across the country and a lifetime away from that packed room in Texas where I had made my first contribution to an ERA campaign, all of $3 tossed into a coffee can being passed around, and where I had begun to translate my growing passion for women's rights into both my vocation and avocation.

You might say, oh well, so much has changed and women have smashed so many glass ceilings that the ERA isn't needed any more, even though a stunning 94 percent of Americans now agree there should be an ERA. In fact, 80 percent report they think the ERA has already been ratified.

It most assuredly has not. The push for ratification in the 1970's stopped three states short of the number needed to enshrine the ERA in the Constitution.

Yet according to Jessica Neuwirth in her book Equal Means Equal, here are just a few of the reasons the ERA is still needed:

  • It would lay the necessary groundwork for stronger, more comprehensive laws and judicial tools to combat gender violence and sex discrimination.
  • It would create a new basis to challenge unequal pay for equal work.
  • It would strengthen protections against pregnancy discrimination.

So here is the reality: We can continue to go through the motions of celebrating Women's Equality Day while tsk tsk-ing the remaining injustices for another 93 years. Or, we can pursue what's necessary for women to achieve full equality under the law.

This is the moment, and it's past time. I'm proud to say I've joined the Advisory Council of the ERA Coalition, to work alongside Neuwirth, Jenkins, Gloria Steinem, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, and other notables to take Alice Paul's simple statement of justice to the finish line.

This is where I came into the women's movement. And this is where I intend to go out--knowing that my life's mission to advance women to full equality in this world is safe because the women of America have the Equal Rights amendment.

Won't you join me?

Let's make future Women's Equality Days truly something to celebrate.